Ahmad Ghulamhussain, Director Sales & Marketing, Agro Processors & Atmospheric Gases (Pvt.) Ltd. talks about the company’s history and how it is positioned for dealing with future challenges.
Synergyzer: What is the background behind the conception of the APAG?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: In the 1950’s, my father and uncles migrated to Pakistan from Mumbai and started E.M. Oil Mills as partners. By 1954, we were the third or fourth largest edible oil mill in the country, with Malta Cooking Oil & Banaspati as our flagship brand.
In 1973, E.M. Oil Mill was nationalized, meaning it was taken away from us by the government. Although we had a trading house, a liquid gold factory etc.; ghee still remained our core business and while delving into different businesses from 1973 to 1981, we manufactured and set up edible oil plants for Ghee Corporative Pakistan, owing to our expertise in the field.
In 1981, my father and his brothers established a gas factory, Agro Processors & Atmospheric Gases Pvt Ltd. (APAG), the name we have carried forward till now after re-establishing the edible oil business. Back then, we supplied hydrogen gas to the Pakistan Air Force. We also provided dry ice to Pakistan Airlines and Swiss Air, and Carbon Dioxide to casting companies’ and bottlers for Coca-Cola and PepsiCo beverages. Eventually we had to phase out of the industry because although a subsidy was given to gas users in other parts of country, no government subsidy was given to hydrogen producers in Karachi, therefore it was very hard to compete.
We gradually moved back into the edible oil business in the 1990’s and that is where I came in as a part of the second generation of the family business, after completing my Masters from The University of Southern California in December 1989. Initially, I was given the responsibility of sales and marketing for launching the newly created Soya Supreme brand, in 1991, which I carried out with the current Chairman of APAG. Since then, the company has evolved drastically.
Synergyzer: What is the evolution about?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: Well, the second generation in charge, which is me and other members of my family constituted the Board of Directors and our role was mainly giving strategic directions, which means we did not actively delve into day-to-day business operations as we hired professionals. Beginning in 1997 we had the first professional on board and after that we never looked back. It has been almost 20 years to the process now. Although gradual changes have been made, but a solid foundation was laid for the company’s future almost 2 decades back.
Synergyzer: What is APAG’s vision, mission and philosophy?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: APAG has envisioned building loved and trusted brands for consumers across the globe. Through beautifully crafted halal products that are symbols of lifestyle, convenience and health we transform simple meals into memorable feasts.
Our mission, on the other hand, is to keep health and convenience for consumers as our prime objective. We continuously strive to elevate the lifestyle of our consumers’ families with the quality and value of our products. We aim to expand our business beyond borders and eventually become a true global company. Through consistent research and development, we continue to innovate and create at every level.
Our philosophy is based around being EXQUISITE i.e. EX for Excellence, QU for Quality, I for Innovation, S for Service, I for Ingenuity, T for Traditions, and E for Efficiency.
Synergyzer: What are the core values of APAG?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: We take pride in the fact that we respect traditions and have a number of stakeholders working with us for over 2 decades.
Apart from this, our brands have ISO and halal certifications to benchmark our entire product range. We also believe in the value that our employees come first. It is imperative to develop a culture based on hard work, commitment and loyalty. We clearly try to instil a culture whereby each and every employee internalizes a sense of responsibility for their duties instead of top leadership chastising them for doing their job. We try to incorporate efficiency in the production, marketing and sales level, and in doing so, we optimise the use of resources.
Synergyzer: How is your organisation structured to face challenges in the long-run?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: We strongly believe that each employee’s performance is interlinked with our success holistically; hence, our focus is to create cohesion amongst our employees. We have completed the forming stage and are now in the storming stage as we are looking at running APAG for the long haul.
APAG is structured with several management layers. Firstly, we have the Board of Directors, where each director is taking care of strategic direction of his own department. Then, for business operations, we have the senior management i.e. the GM and CFO, followed by middle and second-tier management.
Board members occasionally take part in Strategic Management Meetings (SMG), where senior management suggests plans for the coming years. Many innovations and concepts that we have introduced over the years can be attributed to our SMG meetings. Furthermore, monthly planning is carried out and targets are set for each department such as supply chain, sales, marketing etc. The mid-tier management on other hand, carries out discussions fortnightly or wherever required about operations to build communication at every level.
Synergyzer: APAG’s competitors in the edible oil category have diversified into other product ranges. Do you have any similar plans?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: Yes, we have recently launched sauces including mayonnaise range and ketchup in the HORECA (Hotel/Restaurant/Café) segment which has received an overwhelming response. This in turn gives us more confidence to launch additional products catering to not just HORECA but also to the consumer retail segment.
Synergyzer: You recently introduced the Malta Cooking Oil and Banaspati with advertisements although the brand has existed since 1954. What is the reason behind marketing it aggressively in the recent times?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: It’s only the past three to four years where we have actually focused on the brand, we believe that it has helped us serve as a penetration brand for APAG. Yet, interestingly, due to its legacy, consumers still have a great brand recall and can still remember the brand’s original communications.
Synergyzer: Do you currently utilize export marketing?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: We only export our products to Afghanistan. You see the freight cost of importing the raw materials from Malaysia to Pakistan and then exporting the finished good is very high. I can tell you this though that we are looking into exporting our new products to various countries.
Synergyzer: What products do you offer for increasingly health-conscious consumers?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: All of our products follow set quality production standards to ensure the health of the end user. Additionally, we have introduced Smart Canola Oil, Smart Mayonnaise Dressing and Smart Ketchup specifically for consumers looking for heart-healthy products. Let me put it to you this way; if we don’t care for our consumers they won’t care for us.
Synergyzer: Soya Supreme’s three-episode Ramadan campaign which revolved around family cohesion and shared values was a very successful one. Should we expect more of the same concept in future campaigns?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: We had a successful campaign and people liked it. It helped build our brand equity. I, for one, expect my team to come up with something better. So, you should expect something new next year.
Synergyzer: What are your comments on Soya Supreme’s target market?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: Cooking is the pride of a woman and it is usually her responsibility to cook for the family. We have always targeted young girls between the ages of 15-25 as well as young mothers of 26-35 years of age, and we intend to continue targeting them in the future.
I must say though, women between the ages of 35 to 45 are harder to convince and tend to have more rigid perceptions. Yet, we are still targeting them. If you are able to earn the consumer’s trust they will take your brand forward.
Synergyzer: Has the use of brand integrations with different TV channels been effective?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: Although I personally like brand integrations, but it is difficult to gauge effectiveness. Looking forward, however, if something more suitable for our business comes up we might use that. We have been consistently doing brand integrations on a famous food channel’s popular cooking show. In the recent past game shows have been much liked by viewers, therefore we have been participating in them too. So, do expect more brand integrations on TV channels in future communication.
Synergyzer: How much of a challenge is it for Soya Supreme to compete with multinational offerings in this category?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: There is negligible MNC’s share in the category. I complement our Pakistani competitors for coming up with quality products and giving Pakistani consumers healthy brands, which in turn, stiffened competition for MNC’s (Multinational Corporations).
Our new products will have to compete with MNC’s though, and I do believe we have the potential to do so. But to succeed we have to create quality products, believe in them and remain open to competition.
Synergyzer: How has APAG employed Business-to-Business (B2B) selling?
Ahmad Ghulamhussain: Serena Hotels, Ramada Hotels, Aga Khan University & Hospital, Ziauddin University & Hospital, and leading restaurants in Pakistan are some of the businesses using our products. We have a strong B2B department with efficient distribution networks.